When Brian Wheeler founded the fast-casual Tijuana Flats concept in 1995, he was about 25 years old. He knew next to nothing about starting a restaurant, but his father loaned him some money, and the concept worked. Tijuana Flats grew to 140 units before Wheeler sold it to a private-equity firm in 2015.
Now Wheeler’s oldest son Jake Wheeler is around 25 and you could say the circle is coming around again.
The father and son this week launched a new concept together called Big Taco, which opened in Casselberry, Fla.
Like Tijuana Flats, Big Taco is a fast-casual Tex-Mex concept, but it’s something completely different—in part because Tijuana Flats changed considerably after he sold it, Brian said.
“When I look at the landscape of Tex-Mex, including the company I sold, I believe most of them over-engineer their food,” said Brian, noting that his non-compete agreement expired years ago. “They’ve gone away from what, to me, is the best part about Tex-Mex and fast casual. It’s just being very simple.”
Big Taco, for example, offers tacos with hard corn or soft flour tortillas with a choice of beef, pork, chicken, steak or beans. No descriptors to navigate like “al pastor” or “carne asada.”
Burritos, enchiladas and nachos are similarly simple—and here the burritos are grilled, which is something Tijuana Flats also did in the early days, but stopped doing after Wheeler sold it.
There are a few “specialties,” like a chili-smothered burrito; a Texas chili bowl; crispy Kickin’ Chicken in a burrito or taco; and a spinach-and-artichoke quesadilla. Prices are generally around $7.95 (for two nine-inch beef tacos), and the menu includes craft beers in bottles and cans.
Though guests order at the counter at Big Taco, it’s not a walk-the-makeline concept like Chipotle. The Wheelers describe it as a “service-first” model. A greeter opens the doors as diners arrive, for example. Food is run to tables and staffers clear plates and get refills on drinks.
The landscape of Tex-Mex and taco concepts has grown considerably since 1995, when Tijuana Flats was born. But Brian said, “There are never enough Tex-Mex restaurants, just like there are never enough pizza joints or Chinese restaurants … If you serve a great product and take care of your guests and offer a great experience, any concept can be successful.”
Jake points to concepts like In-N-Out Burger and Raising Cane’s, restaurant chains that operate with a very simple and focused menu that are embraced by his generation.
“They both just offer very simple, straightforward food and great service,” said Jake. “And it’s very consistent.”
Brian is originally from Louisiana and his younger son Gavin also plans to join in Big Taco after he graduates from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, which is also home to the first Raising Cane’s.
“There was a sign outside that Raising Cane’s location for their 25th anniversary that said, ‘25 years of not changing things that aren’t broken,’” said Jake. “I think that’s a good model to go by.”
Brian started Tijuana Flats with little restaurant experience, but early on he was joined by industry veteran Camp Fitch, the former president of S&A Corp., which was parent to Steak & Ale and other brands. Brian’s father, Chester Wheeler, also left his position as CEO of a Fortune 500 company to serve as Tijuana Flats’ CFO.
Unlike their father, Jake and brother Gavin are coming into the restaurant industry with plenty of their own experience under their belts.
After selling Tijuana Flats, Brian went on to create Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen, a now three-unit full-service concept that he said is doing well. The two sons have grown up working in those restaurants.
But, rather than expand Tibby’s, a much more complicated model, the Wheelers decided to move forward with something easier to operate. Tibby’s locations, for example, require about 240 people to staff, where Big Taco will require about 35.
Tijuana Flats grew with the help of franchising, but Brian said that didn’t always go so well.
“We struggled with franchising a bit,” he said. “We tried to adjust as much as we could, but eventually we pulled the plug on the franchising deal and we ended up buying back a lot of our franchises.”
Now the Wheelers say they are not sure about whether they will franchise Big Taco.
Jake is keen to get the concept going to grow, as Tijuana Flats did, and he contends the simpler model would also translate better as a franchised brand.
“I want to get this thing moving and have the growth of Tijuana Flats and the scale of it. But he always preaches to me that we have to take it one location at a time, one guest at a time,” said Jake of his father.
“If we can get this thing to where we think it has legs and really want to grow it, then we’ll go after it,” said Brian.
But, the father added, “If this ends up being a small little taco place that I work with my two boys in, that works out well too.”
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